Tim Craig as Bill and Emilie Soffe as Johnny in the Theatre UAB premiere of "The Ransom of Red Chief"

Does your company of performers include an energetic young lady of slight build? You know, the kind who's always getting cast as little boys? Then this is the play for you -- it retells the world-famous O.Henry short story about the kidnappers who quickly come to regret making off with this particular whelp. The play is written for five actors, one of whom must play a man and a woman, and another of whom must play a young boy and a very old man.

For the first time in any of my adaptations, I didn't have the problem of condensing a long story into a short performance. Instead, I had to expand and (I hope) enrich the adaptation to create a full hour of entertainment. My goal was to bring O. Henry's characters and situations to life and place them in the framework of some additional characters who carry out some of the "offstage action" described in the original story. Apparently the script succeeds, because the premiere tour -- mounted by Theatre UAB, as usual -- was an enormous hit! I feel sure it would be just as big a hit with your audiences as well.

SAM
Bill, you're not going to believe this -- but I think the dear boy has dropped off to sleep.

BILL
Then I'm going to try to get to sleep as quick as I can -- there's no telling when he'll wake up again.

Sam and Bill settle into their places, with nothing but their own clothes for bedding.

All is still -- for about ten seconds. Then Johnny silently unwinds himself from the blanket and steals over to the already-unconscious Bill. He kneels over Bill's head, blocking it from all view but his own. Then:

BILL
WAAAAGGGH!

Sam jumps up and pulls Johnny away from Bill -- or tries to, as Johnny has a firm grip on Bill's hair in one hand and a flashing silver blade in the other.

Johnny hollers, Bill shrieks, and Sam bellows. Sam wins; Johnny lets go.

JOHNNY
We caught the white trapper fair and square! Indian law says we get to scalp him!

SAM
Get back over there in your blanket.

JOHNNY
Aw, I was only playing with him.

Johnny covers himself entirely with a blanket, so he becomes a shapeless mound.

BILL
He's still got our bacon knife under there.

SAM
Oh, he does not.

Sam whips back the blanket to reveal a grinning Johnny brandishing the knife.

Sam twists it away from him and covers him back up.

BILL
Remember he said he was going to scalp me first and then burn you at the stake.

SAM
Go to sleep, Bill.

BILL
If he said he was going to roast you alive you'd better believe he plans to do it.

SAM
Well, he'd need some matches to build a fire, wouldn't he? And does he have matches? No, he does not. So go to sleep.

Silence.

Then a long scratching sound.

Then another.

On the third one, Sam and Bill sit up.

Together they pull off Johnny's blanket to reveal the kid toying with Bill's box of matches.

JOHNNY
These rotten matches won't even light!

BILL
(snatching them back)
You stole these right out of my bag!

JOHNNY
Why shouldn't I steal? You two done it!

BILL
Who says?

JOHNNY
You did, you stole me right out from under my daddy's nose. If you can steal things I can too.

SAM
Listen, young Dorset. We'll do all the fire-building around here, all right? So leave our matches alone.

JOHNNY
There's other ways to start fires.

And the way he says this, it's not a threat -- it's a promise.

 

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